Rabbi Philip Weintraub’s empathy for America’s latest wave of refugees is rooted in his Jewish values and his family’s own experience.
His ancestors sought refuge in the United States “in waves and trickles” in the late 1800s, he said during a virtual town hall for the Tampa Bay Jewish community about how to help Afghan refugees resettle in the area.
“I don’t think there’s a Jewish family in this country that doesn’t have a story, whether it is one generation away, whether it is two generations away, whether it is five generations away, or even 10 generations away. We all left somewhere, and oftentimes, it was not entirely of free will,” the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in St. Petersburg said.
Last August, as Afghans frantically fled their homeland in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) was among organizations nationwide scrambling to answer the State Department’s urgent request to assist.
As of this week, Gulf Coast JFCS has resettled 164 Afghan refugees locally. It has been asked to help a total of 250.
The agency is not unfamiliar with this type of operation. For more than 50 years, it has been resettling refugees, among them the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, Jews from the former Soviet Union and people fleeing the former Yugoslavia.
Like those who came before, the newest refugees face additional challenges following their forced uprooting. Those joining the recent town hall heard from a cultural expert that Afghan refugees, many of whom were of vital support to the American military, are a diverse people who have had to make accommodations to survive in a country in perpetual upheaval. Some are comfortable with American culture and are fluent in English, while others, even in the same family, might not be.
Regardless, anxiety and fear often permeate their new lives.
“The withdrawal was abrupt, so overnight, people lost their homes, lost family, everything they knew,” explained Sylvia Acevedo, senior director of refugee and employment services at Gulf Coast JFCS.
“They arrived here and had to start over. There’s a lot of trauma they experienced, lots of fear of the unknown, the culture, language … not to mention moving to an area where housing is difficult to find.”
It’s not uncommon that rent for a two-bedroom apartment would run about $2,200, she said, adding to the challenge of those trying to start over in a new country with low-wage jobs. While many Afghan refugees are highly skilled, some are not yet certified to work in their professions in the U.S.
“That’s some of the challenges we see folks experiencing and just really feeling isolated,” Acevedo said. “There’s not much of an Afghan community in this area.”
The goal is to help them to become self-sufficient as soon as possible. Gulf Coast JFCS is required by the State Department to assist refugees for a minimum of 30 days and for no more than 90 days. But the current influx of refugees is straining the system. “It’s really hard to hang on to folks for 90 days when we have so many arrivals,” Acevedo said.
It’s probably not well known, but each refugee receives a one-time allowance of $1,025, which they are required to pay back to the International Organization for Migration within six months of their arrival. That money, which Gulf Coast JFCS manages on behalf of the families it assists, is used to help them pay for housing, food and personal items.
In August, as the crisis in Afghanistan unfolded, Tampa Bay residents clamored to help. They offered housing, donations from the Amazon Wish List that Gulf Coast JFCS created, including sheets, pillows and face masks – items the agency is required to provide to refugees – and cash. With the arrival of additional newcomers, though, the need has increased.
“We need the same things we needed then, housing, any donations that people can make, volunteering their time,” Acevedo said.
She is protective of Tampa Bay’s new residents. The fact is, she wouldn’t even say in which cities they live or divulge the tiniest detail about their lives for fear it might get back to the Taliban via the internet. Many refugees still have loved ones in Afghanistan.
The agency, which is looking for co-sponsorship groups and mentors to help Afghan refugees, is part of the Tampa Bay Refugee Task Force. It’s a coalition of individuals and organizations helping refugee families “to settle, integrate and thrive.”
The Jewish community has been anxious to help, which led to the recent town hall organized by Gulf Coast JFCS, the Jewish Federation of Florida’s Gulf Coast and Tampa Jewish Community Centers and Federation.
“If you are in a position to help, you help … We cannot simply say this is someone else’s problem,” Weintraub said that evening.
“We are commanded according to Jewish tradition to emulate God … God cared for the stranger and welcomed the stranger … We have to remember that we were the stranger, we were welcomed – not always easily and not always perfectly – but we have been welcomed and we need to continue that welcome for the next generation.”
Speaking by telephone Thursday, Weintraub spoke about the importance of diversity and said that Jews, who have made a home in the U.S. since its founding, have seen how immigrants and refugees have made it stronger.
“The diversity is the reason that America is number one in so many things,” he said. “I don’t want my kids to only know people of one faith or race or sexuality.”
How to Help
To find out about assisting with housing, or to volunteer, contact Sylvia Acevedo at Sylvia.Acevedo@gcjfcs.org